Workplace Switzerland

Why Switzerland needs workers from abroad

Like many other developed countries, Switzerland faces a significant shortage of personnel in many sectors. The immigration of skilled workers helps to meet much of the demand from companies, but the issue is politically controversial.  

This content was published on March 8, 2023 - 08:41
Paula Troxler (Illustration)

At the end of 2022, there were more than 120,000 job vacancies in Switzerland, a number not seen since 2003 - the year figures were first provided by the Federal Statistical Office (FSO). This phenomenon is not unique to Switzerland: three out of four companies worldwide are reporting recruitment difficulties, according to the recruitment giant ManpowerGroup.  

The list of professions in demand is as long as it is varied: hotels and restaurants, industry, IT, construction, health care and logistics.

"All economic sectors are now competing for the same type of skills. If you are an IT specialist or a delivery driver, you are spoilt for choice in your job search," says Stefan Studer, director of the Swiss Employees Association.  

The strong post-pandemic economic recovery partly explains these recruitment difficulties. In some industries, particularly the hotel, restaurant and care sectors, the pandemic has also highlighted difficult working conditions, pushing many employees to switch to other professions.  

However, the current situation provides a foretaste of the difficulties that Swiss employers will face in their search for staff in the future. Due to the ageing of the population and the retirement of the so-called "baby boomer" generation, the labour market is likely to face major upheavals in the coming years.  

With unemployment at a 20-year low, demand for labour high, and health restrictions fully lifted, it's no surprise that immigration is on the rise again in Switzerland.

"Switzerland is one of the most attractive countries in Europe for migrants looking for work," says Philippe Wanner, professor at the Institute of Demography and Socio-Economics at the University of Geneva. "And these people are successful in this demanding labour market, which offers higher wages in comparison to Europe".

Workers from the European Union (EU) and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) have easy access to the Swiss labour market. They benefit from the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons (ALCP). However, competition for skilled labour from other European countries is becoming increasingly fierce.

This is particularly true in the health sector: Swiss hospitals are actively recruiting abroad to cope with the shortage of  medical staff.

"But even in Poland, it is difficult to find enough qualified personnel ready to settle in Switzerland," points out Grazyna Scheiwiller of Carenea, a company specialising in labour recruitment in Poland.  

For non-European job seekers, access to the Swiss labour market remains restricted. Only highly qualified workers from so-called third countries (i.e. outside Europe) are admitted. Employers wishing to hire workers from these countries must prove that they cannot find anyone with the corresponding qualifications in Switzerland or in the EU/EFTA area. Furthermore, such admissions must be in the interests of Switzerland and the economy. The number of work permits for third-country nationals is also limited by quotas.

Despite the record vacancy rate, the question of whether immigrants take jobs from nationals remains politically controversial. The impact of immigration on infrastructure and the environment is also regularly criticised by some politicians. The conservative right has made this one of its main campaign themes for the federal elections on October 22.  

With the issue of immigration becoming more and more controversial, other solutions are being put forward to try to overcome the shortage. The business community wants to make the most of the potential of the resident workforce. First and foremost, this applies to women, nearly six out of ten of whom work part-time - a rate that is almost unheard of in Europe.     

There are also other pools of labour within the population that can be tapped: young people, the elderly, refugees and social welfare recipients. The Conference of Social Welfare Institutions (CSIAS) and the Swiss Federation for Continuing Education (FSEA) have recently launched a training offensive for people on social welfare, whereas the focus until now has been on professional reintegration.

"Experience shows that improving skills makes integration into the labour market more sustainable. This is a paradigm shift in the field", explains FSEA President Matthias Aebischer.

The scarcity of labour is also a boon for all those people already in employment. They now hold the upper hand in wage negotiations. With the balance of power shifting in favour of the employees and their representatives, demands from unions may increase in the future.  

This new situation is also leading to a growing desire for professional mobility, particularly among the younger generation. Although the scale of this trend has not yet reached the "Great Resignation" phenomenon observed in the United States or the United Kingdom, companies are nevertheless forced to make 180-degree organisational and cultural shifts in order to attract and retain young talent.    

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